Through the use of aggregate transformed from plastic waste, Sphera is producing the world’s first carbon-zero aggregate concrete block.
If the global concrete industry was a country, it would be the third largest producer of CO2 in the world; it is responsible for 8% of global emissions. Innovation in the concrete industry is vital to achieve net zero by 2050 and the 78% decarbonisation target by 2035. Meanwhile 91% of plastic still not being recycled.
Sphera is innovating in a highly traditional sector that is perceived as resistant to change. The co-founders believe that their product is unique: they have not come across any other carbon-zero/carbon-negative blockwork around the world. The business is currently in the R&D phase, heading for commercialisation in late 2021/22. The next stage is to manufacture production prototypes, and Sphera, which is hoping to double the size of its team imminently, will be manufacturing the prototypes at its site in Stockton-on-Tees. Sphera sees itself as a high-growth business, aiming to establish itself in the UK and then grow globally.
Sphera’s three co-founders, who come from Bedfordshire, Manchester and Bristol and are all under 30 years old, met while studying for PhDs at Durham University. It seemed logical for them to establish a business in the North East, where they had strong links to their university and a closely knit business community, and ready access to the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), a founding member of the UK Government’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult; based at five locations in the North East, it helps companies develop, prove and commercialise new products and processes.
In its earliest stage of development, the company benefited from funding from the Northern Accelerator, a North East university partnership which aims to speed up the translation of world-leading research into commercial opportunities. The alternative would have been self-funding – not a viable option for the co-founders at that stage of their careers. The programme provided proof-of-concept funding, training in entrepreneurship and access to an experienced business executive to help lead the business through its start-up phase.
Sphera’s development has been supported by two grants from Innovate UK, which is part of the national funding agency. The initial grant came through the Grant North East Angel R&D Programme Regional Angel Investment Accelerator, designed to encourage angel investors in the region. Sphera CEO Natasha Boulding feels that the North East’s industrial heritage favours Sphera as a business reinventing a traditional material, and it has received investment both from angels and from regionally based venture capital firms. Its second Innovate UK grant, the hotly contested £50K Women in Innovation Award, was made to Natasha Boulding in May 2021. It enabled Sphera take on its fourth employee, a lead research scientist.